Minister agrees to talks on ferry tender legal advice

The Scottish Parliament hosted a debate on November 25 on keeping ferry services operated by CalMac in public hands.
The Scottish Parliament hosted a debate on November 25 on keeping ferry services operated by CalMac in public hands.

Scotland’s transport and islands minister has agreed to hold talks over legal advice which suggests the tendering process for Clyde and Hebrides ferry services could be scrapped.

Derek Mackay made the promise during a Scottish Parliament debate on Wednesday on the future of the publicly-funded services currently operated by CalMac Ferries Ltd.

Mr Mackay’s commitment follows the publication of legal advice obtained by the RMT union suggesting that the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Service (CHFS) tendering process can be terminated at any time without incurring any liability to the bidders.

The union - which has repeatedly expressed concern about the ‘privatisation’ of services in the event of private firm Serco winning the next eight-year CHFS contract - has obtained the advice of QC Gordon Nardell that a European precedent, the ‘Teckal exemption’, means there is no need to hold a tendering exercise for the provision of lifeline ferry services.

Referring to Mr Nardell’s opinion in Wednesday’s debate, Mr Mackay said: “I believe that the legal and policy advice that I have been given is robust, but if there is emerging new advice, it would be wrong to rule out even looking at that.

“In that spirit, I agree to have a further meeting with the spokesperson for the Opposition to do that.”

Mr Mackay said he was willing to test the legal opinion given to the Scottish Government on the issue, “so that I can continue to be convinced that we are conducting a necessary exercise”.

“If we did not believe that it was necessary,” he added, “we would not be embarking on it.”

Serco Caledonian Ferries is bidding against the publicly-owned CalMac Ferries for the next CHFS contract, which begins in October 2016 and is due to run for up to eight years.

The two firms’ final bids are due to be submitted by the end of January, but the winning bidder will not be announced until after the Scottish Parliament elections in May.